On the Philanthropic Philosophy of the Pyrrhonists

On the Philanthropic Philosophy of the Pyrrhonists

"La mucha luz es como la mucha sombra: no deja ver"
- Octavio Paz

From what we’ve all heard about the Pyrrhonists, and of what is commonly understood of the history of philanthropy, it’s hard to imagine a relationship of one with the other. That they would even describe themselves in such terms as “philanthropic” would seem to need justifying, as Diego Machuca sought to do in his 2006 article “The Pyrrhonist’s ἀταραξία and Φιλανθρωπία”[1]. Part of the issue relates to the concept itself and the other side of this relates to our understanding of the Pyrrhonic skeptics and their aims.

While we are wont for a satisfying presence of surviving written record, from what is in fact available it can be stated without controversy that many things have been obscured in the popular telling[2] of the history of Pyrrho and the Skeptics. Much like Pyrrho's stance towards "dogmatic" statements, one finds that it is necessary, when facing an overdetermination of clarity/illumination, to step back, and to redirect a focus towards assumptions and the non-evident.

How can things be well illuminated but non-evident, or even obscured from sight? The problem is extremely hard to pinpoint as it deals with something so close to mankind’s relationship to the language it employs vis-à-vis what ‘is’. The problem can alternatively be posed as 'how can one see without an overdetermination or the predication of Being —that is, ascribing fixed qualities to existence'. The light in this case, regarding the Pyrrhonist’s philanthropy, is again, very similar to the themes Pyrrho himself faced regarding matters of causation or first principles, it emanates from doxa and shines with a force that one’s own senses are unable establish their own relations of contact and evaluation.

The Pyrrhonist has been conceived as one with an abstract concern for truth or knowledge claims, traveling the land in perpetual indecision and desirous for others to join him in his indecision, something directly at odds with type of worldly practicality required of philosopher in the court of someone the likes of Alexander or of someone who would have the very real tragedy of the life of Anaxarchus as example of the dangers of the non-evident. Egregious caricaturizations are of course not unique to Pyrrho in mentions of ancient philosophy, but insofar as conditions offer one the ability to see more clearly, that is, to be skeptics, investigators in the face of dogma, one should.

At least according to what we know from Aristocles of Messene, and as captured in Eusebius's Praeparatio Evangelica, what has come to be known as the pillars of Pyrrhonic innovation is a practice or way of being that aims: at [1] the questioning of how things are by nature; [2] the determination of what attitude one will adopt towards things; and [3] what will be the outcome for those who have this or that attitude? Restating in somewhat different terms, the central questions relate to the nature of an "appearance", the disposition one takes with regard to the appearance, and what becomes or is produced via the disposition.

According to Timon, Pyrrho declared that with regard to [1] things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable. For this reason [2] neither our sensations nor our opinions tell us truths or falsehoods. Therefore, for this reason we should not put our trust in them, but we should be unopinionated, uncommitted and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or it both is and is not, or it neither is nor is not. [3] The outcome for those who adopt this attitude, says Timon, will be first speechlessness, and then imperturbability.[3]

The particular set of truths that concerned Pyrrho were thus in relation to epistemology [1] and ethics [2][3]. And as should be clear, this ethics is double sided, opening us up to a relationship to our subjective experience --the tradition mentioned first by Plato in the Alcibiades of epimeleia heautou[4] as much as to a relationship of subjective experience with in-the-world events and conventional constructs. What brings one to speechlessness and imperturbability expresses an alignment of internal and external productive conditions (i.e. conditions productive of these particular effects). As Michel Foucault aptly brought back to modern attention, this framing of self-care in terms of an aesthetics of existence extended beyond abstract (or specialized) concerns, rather, it framed the activity of philosophers and their interlocutors unto the Roman Christian period.[5] For Pyrrho it was equally so. The skeptic concerns herself with whether Being is predicated because it has consequences for how one lives.

Speechlessness is here spoken of as the “saying” of being, of what is. Thus, ones’ engagement with life is of course not without speech, but the rather the use of ones' speech –with its Archaic Greek connections to Muses/Poets, Kings, & Priests— fix truths (aletheia) to being. Life continues as convention (actively and passively established) dictates, but the authority granted external judgements of qualification and distribution of sense are strictly declined. Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea appears as shapeshifter and conceived as a trickster not by virtue of intrinsic ontological attribute, but as an expression of the implications of the body’s relationship to truth.

Belief and Knowing

Sextus Empiricus states the twofold aim of the skeptic as: 1) ataraxia as regards belief; and 2) moderation of feeling in matters forced upon us.[6] Belief or opinion here relates back to concern for “how things are by nature” --i.e. what can be said to be true or false as pertains to nature as separate from the truth of what appears to a subject (appearances). It is true that X appears to me; it is not true that what appears to me is the True. “Matters forced upon us”, like “appearances”, focus the skeptic back on one’s corporeality. For, like what appears to you, what forces concern as a “matter” or “problem”, will always depend on corporeal conditions. However, this empirical basis of inquiry is framed by an existential concern. The quality of our modes of being.

One gets the sense however that Sextus presents the majority of the basis for skeptical concern at the level of the polemic. In describing what is at fault in the reasoning of others and in the opposition of propositions stated and accepted as true. As though the response and presentation of the thought of one who left no written works was a “matter forced upon” one. One must infer from the presentation the problem it responds or corresponds to.

In an odd manner, one could assert that, like Plato, Pyrrho, the Stoics and Epicurus all engaged in their own ways in the Eleatic debate against the democracy of opinion. Anyone can lay claim to anything, and do. And like Plato, they could assert in contest: Our representations of the world or of reality do not have equal validity. But there the similarity ends, for while Plato establishes criteria of judgement based upon an idea of reality and essence independent but also identical to the mind (implying a “natural” good will in the nature of thinking on its path to the known), the Epicureans and Stoics establish truths in light of, or with the caveat of the impediments of the slowness of mind or false or ungraspable presentations, Pyrrho has done away with the presupposition that 1) thinking implies knowing; and 2) that truth has an “identity” recognizable by our willing minds. Put differently, the difference in problem posed was between the combat of dogma —all that is defended as true or presupposed as such but which is not apparent— via a supra-dogmatic transcendence or via the combat of the transcendence basis of dogma.

What is dogma? Sextus defines it as “assent to […] non-evident matters”. Where aggregations of unclear or non-evident indicative signs or propositions gather in the mind as propositional certainties and not as hypotheses or possibilities or statements of 'what appears to be the case'. This is to say, that appearances exist, but so does truth. But whereas Plato seeks to combat Sophism, false logic and false assertions of truth with criteria of judgment based on recognition and natural thought, Pyrrho puts forth the continual corporeal experience of perception/sensation and thought –encounters, events, and intrusions of matter/problems which meet thought and perception in the unfolding of life that Pyrrho describes as a competing conception of “nature”.[7] The commentaries focus almost exclusively on the boundaries and limits of the endeavor: a subtractive stance with respect to knowledge and an affirmative stance with respect to the denial of dogma. What is left underdetermined is the nature of “nature”. Of what does it consist but the immanent unfolding of appearances?[8] Dogma, one could say is the Platonically “natural” illumination of mind that has as its presupposition the nature of recognition of “truth” when in the presence of truth and the natural willing of thought to acquire truth, only occasionally befuddled by the intervention of errors, deceptions and false presentations to our good-willed minds.[9]

“Adhering, then, to appearances we live in accordance with the normal rules of life, undogmatically” this regulation of life is fourfold, “[..] one part of it lies in the guidance of Nature, another in the constraint of the passions, another in the tradition of laws and customs, and another in the instruction of the arts.”

Knowledge of the world —this guidance of Nature— here continues to be a concern for the skeptic, even if what becomes vocalized from the skeptic is mostly her fending off the dogmatic “light” of others. The skepticism (inquiry) however is not how we in the West traditionally consider it. It is in fact much more broad. The skeptic is not attempting to nail down some independent, external “truth”, but rather an approach towards:

  1. Eudaimonism – an orientation of practices of mind conducive to "human flourishing", e.g. proper treatment of contents of thought previously characterized as good or bad by nature;

  2. Anomaly – techniques of analysis and treatment of anômalia of appearance that aim at the avoidance of assent to non-evident matters --epoché.

  3. Pyrrhonic Nature – the mode of life lived when a body’s evaluation of matters and contents of Nature is done i) empirically; ii) critically; and iii) in satisfaction of what is produced (techne), the constraints of a body’s habitus, and the superior resolution of “passions” for closure with a “skeptical” rather than “dogmatic” form of ataraxia.[10]

These three criteria set these altogether new concepts of belief and knowledge. Belief as acknowledgment of affects and perceptions (‘feelings forced upon one by appearances’).[11] But belief is also the dispositional result of this unfurling of feeling and appearances insofar as it makes up the ‘basis of all that men do’ as posteriorly described by the notion of “habit and convention”.[12] Put another way, this new concept of belief is active—connected at all moments with the body experiencing the appearances—, dispositional—forms a basis of action in the moment which through repetition comes to be viewed as habits and conventions—, and counterposed to the static concept of knowledge-as-truth.

Our Relationship With Knowing

To live according to the guidance of nature has another feature, mentioned above, to which it must be connected, the issue of “matters forced upon us”. To discuss our human relationship with “knowing” is at basis to discuss our relationship with reality. How do we know a “reality”, what do we and can we know of “it”? Of what does it consist? What in fact, is the nature of knowing? The dichotomy posed to us by history is generally one of the alternative between transcendence and the radical chaos of an infinite doubt. But none of this relates to the actual human experience of the necessitation of experience or what is thought of experience.[13]

The skeptic notices what we “know”, as well as what we take on as our problems or the matters that we respond to come to us from without. Custom and our mental customization of the world we interact with and that we live in accordance with, cocoons us in a self-same state of stupor as relates to matters of truth or that which we are to be made aware of and thus “know”. Mental recognition and recollection in the state of custom re-calls or re-cognizes this habituated set of circumstances that we in turn (out of custom) call our “reality”. Pyrrho thus lives in a world defined by custom, but a grounded knowledge of which the skeptic would deny as being non-evident. The skeptics, far more than the Cynics, whose primary objectives would be better considered under the rubric of “Anti-Philosophy” were misosophists par excellence. The attacks made by the Skeptics against ‘truths as knowledge’ and ‘knowledge as wisdom’ if reframed in positive definitions appear to amount to a new definition knowledge when experienced under the skeptic mode of existence. What would these be?

These ideas appear difficult to identify in the work of the Pyrrhonists precisely because they do not invoke the conception of a mental interiority that have been the predominant legacy of western thinking. To know presupposes (in this traditional concept) the knowing subject. One having mastered the object of thought —or that at least seeks to—, possessing, interiorizing within itself an adequate representation of the outside.

The empiricism of the Pyrrhonist however does not posit this type of knowing subject. What Pyrrho posits is the situation of a pre- or non-‘subjectively autonomous’ knowing. A knowing of “recollective signs”, constituted of all that makes “impressions” upon us.[14]

The image of knowledge we develop here is groundless, but conditional and necessitated by experience. Reason as an abstract concept or category is completely alien to this type of knowledge. Instead, what we know is first and foremost what is affectively marked on us. We thus “know” what are lived or “recollective” representations. To know is simply to have, be acquainted with and live in a fluid relationship with signs and representations –to “live in accordance with everyday appearances”.[15] The relationship with Truth, or with Reality is not given in our relationship with knowing. There is no judgment of the known or the knowing that would bestow upon it something that is not given.

Sidenote on the Status of Naming

A frequent interpretation of the Pyrrhonist project is, as hinted at above, one of non-action, non-intervention in or the non-predication of Being. But in virtually all cases of such interpretations, this is posited without showing in what sense it would be necessitated out of consequence of a position or necessitated out of an interpretation of what is posited of their project (e.g. in Sextus). Just to take one example, Antonio Negri calls the attempt to “suppress the restlessness” one feels in the in-between state of confronting the immeasurable and the “force of predication” the “Pyrrhonist temptation”.[16]

With Sextus however, “equipollence” appears to operate on the basis of a type of dialectics between the generation of conflicting arguments, but rather than subsuming the differences encountered, one suspends and continues the inquiry. Equipollence, rather than synthesizing the diversity of accounts, suspends such an urge in favor of an empirically open ataraxia. By “open” one means that the nexus between objects of perception and objects of thought maintains a proactive generativeness. "We come first to suspension of judgment and afterwards to tranquility".[17] While it appears that I assert a productive generativeness to "tranquility", one must recall that tranquility is tranquility of soul (psuché/ψυχή, used in the sense of the "seat of affections and will"), not tranquility from what appears. Appearances are all that present themselves as objects of perception. It is not psuché which is generative in and of itself, but it's continual meeting of appearances.

This has two consequences for how one should see the Pyrrhonist project: there are zero grounds upon which to posit a “suppression” of restlessness, judgement as act being distinct from an affective state. A cessation of restlessness would be the outcome of sets of practices which generate them, not the object of a willing. But more importantly, the problematic the project focuses on is not on not doing something, but on the life of that which would be closed off if one elevated generative conventions to the level of dogma.

The Why of the Pyrrhonist’s Philanthropy

In discussing the rationale of argumentation of the skeptic as opposed to their “aim”, Sextus responds with a description of the skeptic in her endeavors of skeptical argumentation. The “Skeptics [propound arguments of feeble probability because they] are philanthropic and wish to cure by argument, as far as they can, the conceit and rashness of the Dogmatists".[18] If the skeptic has an aim, it is firstly self-directed. The aim of facing and curing or bringing a resolution to anômalia, and the moderation or quelling of pathè is first undergone by the Pyrrhonist herself.

As Machuco writes in his paper, the idea of the philosopher as a ‘soul-doctor’ was a widespread idea in Greek philosophy. He continues:

The suffering of others is a bad thing according to the laws and customs of the community in which he lives, and that in such a community one is encouraged to attempt to change this sort of negative situation as far as one can. Philanthropy was probably an important part of the moral principles underlying the laws and customs of the communities in which the Skeptics portrayed by Sextus lived. One must suspend judgment about the objective validity of the appearances one has by virtue of the laws and customs of one’s community. The philanthropic Skeptic is acting in accordance with his appearances, without affirming or denying that they correspond to the real nature of things, that is, without affirming or denying that the Dogmatists are objectively ill or that philanthropy is the correct attitude that one must adopt.

Machuco attributes conditions of the philanthropy to the “laws and customs” of the community, but it is not at all certain that this attribution to Ancient Greek community values is at all Sextus’s intention with this statement. Replying that the “Skeptics cure by argument because customs dictates” would be a much more direct and simple way of making an indirect claim of the conditioning of a philosophical mode of engagement.

One senses, however, a bigger problem when he’s goes further:

If a Pyrrhonist were to grow up in an individualistic society or be raised in a way that taught him to regard philanthropy as a naïve and impractical attitude, he would probably adopt an individualistic outlook. Pyrrhonism is as such completely indifferent to both individualism and philanthropism, since the Pyrrhonist’s non-Dogmatic adoption of one or the other of these positions rests upon fortuitous circumstances.

The Pyrrhonist is here being represented as one operating out of the impulse to an intellectual exercise of doubt and not one, as earlier established, with the primary aims of bringing about ataraxia. The standard of action of Skepticism lies in ‘an affective state and an involuntary affection’ (cf. PH i 19). And she is passive with respect to the appearances she has by virtue of the laws and customs of his community and the skills she has gained. The Pyrrhonist would not be able to avoid being affected by the state or suffering of others insofar as she remains open to appearances. Whether she forms an opinion or judgment about the nature of that state or suffering is exterior and extrinsic to the affect that would compel a dispositional response. For the Pyrrhonist to be “philanthropic” would not relate to judgments about particular men or men in general. All that we can say of this philanthropia is that it is reflective of the experience that arises in the continual affective communication between bodies.
The other point here, that is actually true of the quoted passage is that “Pyrrhonism is […] completely indifferent to both individualism and philanthropism” but not only because they would come about only by fortuitous circumstances, but because both “isms” are inherently forms of dogma. Philanthropia is not the indicative sign of “philanthropism” but the recollective one of an appearance that would through convention come to be associated with a Pyrrhonic disposition to the appearances of sufferings affecting one. Because truth is intrinsically determined by affect and perception, a subject's relationship to problems/ideas is locally determined, not granted from extrinsic, pre-existent, ideological or other-worldly factors.

The distinguishing characteristics of a Pyrrhonic philanthropic response (as opposed to the Pyrrhonic disposition of philanthropia, which is actually shared by most of their philosophical contemporaries and forbearers, including the Cynics), if we simplify the approaches to dogmatism Sextus inherits from defenders of the Skeptic schools like Aenesidemus and Agrippa, are twofold:

  • help to receive the appearances of life non-deceptively; and
  • help to show that non-dogmatic living aids in achieving eudaimonia.

The philanthropy is at once a mode of being or ethos and epistemology just as the philosophy was shown to be above.

The darkness that are viewed pejoratively in contrast to light in the Eleatic world and which are tempered by Plato as part of a larger universe of things viewed in and of themselves, light, darkness and shadow, becomes even further challenged with Pyrrho. The Eleatics showed that light can lead to progress, but there are rules. The Academics presented a world where there is light, but there are equally shadows that obscure objects in and of themselves. Here, neither darkness or light takes on an absolute significance because it is the body itself that takes center stage. The significance one makes of forms of light and shade depends on matters that force themselves upon and which mark a body. The Pyrrhonic philanthropy will with one hand block out light so that one can see, and with the other pull back a veil so that light may enter. The shape it takes and how it intervenes in the world will be rooted in the conditions of the bodies passively and actively involving themselves in concrete lived scenarios. This type of philosophy and the philanthropy it implies is a far stretch from the tales we tell about it. Perhaps one day the strength of a productive counter-narrative can itself become convention.

  1. Diego E. Machuca, “The Pyrrhonist’s ἀταραξία and Φιλανθρωπία”, Ancient Philosophy 26 (2006). ↩︎

  2. The original caricatures largerly originate (as with many historical thinker) with Diogenes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (IX 61-108). ↩︎

  3. Aristocles apud Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 14.18.1-5, translated by Long and Sedley, 1F ↩︎

  4. Plato, Alcibiades 129, a,b ↩︎

  5. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1988 (CS) ↩︎

  6. Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, Book I, Chapter. XII. ↩︎

  7. Ibid Chapter XI ↩︎

  8. Peter S. Fosl begins to develop this thinking in connecting Pyrrho to his modern heir David Hume in “Skepticism and the Possibility of Nature” in D.E. Machuca (ed.), Pyrrhonism in Ancient, Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, The New Synthese Historical Library 70, DOI 10.10007/978-94-007-1991-1_8, Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2011 ↩︎

  9. While one can read these critiques in the work of the Skeptics (Pyrrho/Sextus, Hume), as Gilles Deleuze points out, the west would not see a clear critique of the classic image of thought until the work of Nietzsche. See Difference & Repetition, trans. P. Patton (London: Anthlone Press, 1984), p.132. ↩︎

  10. Fosl, ibid. pp.160-164. ↩︎

  11. PH I, chapter VII ↩︎

  12. Diogenes, Laertius, and Robert D. Hicks. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. London: W. Heinemann, 1925. Print, Book IX, Chapt 61 ↩︎

  13. My approach here will be based upon our general understanding of the philosophical “life” and the ambitions of such a life during the period from Pyrrho to Sextus. Cf. Pierre Hadot, Qu'est-ce que la philosophie antique? Paris: Gallimard, 1995. ↩︎

  14. PH II, chapter X ↩︎

  15. PH I, chapter XI ↩︎

  16. Antonio Negri, Time for Revolution trans. Matteo Mandarini (Continuum: London 2003), p. 170. ↩︎

  17. PH I, chapter IV ↩︎

  18. PH III, chapter XXXII ↩︎